Photographer Joel Sartore comes to Duke

How many followers do you think National Geographic has on instagram? 73.3 million. Like them, I follow NatGeo’s photography religiously, especially the Photo Ark series.

Joel Sartore, an internationally renowned photographer and conservationist, was inspired to document all the world’s animals. Last week, he dropped by Duke to capture the lemurs at the Duke Lemur Center, as well as talk to students of his experience with the 6,000 animals he has already photographed.

Sartore started off as a freelance photographer on assignments with NatGeo. His eye for capturing not just wildlife, but how humans interact with them be it directly or through the traces of manmade-objects we leave, was apparent from the start. Even at home, the photography instinct does not rest as he shared some hilarious clips of family Christmas photos.

In a confluence of all events of life, he was inspired in part by Audubon’s detailed paintings of birds, in part by his family and by the growing extinction rates. From these, he decided to create an ark, to save every species digitally. He made the conscious choice to photograph them in their best light and angle, in a studio. I thought that this was quite the departure from usual conservation photography, which tends to prefer capturing creatures in a natural background to give the semblance of wildness. However, he explained that the zoos and reservations he works with tend to have tamer animals accustomed to human interactions, making the task much more feasible.

That said, animals are still unpredictable, like the time he was attacked by a particularly vicious bird, or had to coax a shy armadillo out of its ball, or be on his toes around a tiger. His stories were endless, as is his task so it seems. However, such an endeavour has never been more urgent, as he shared the story of Toughie. The world’s last Rabb’s fringe-limb tree frog died and the species went extinct from the chytrid pandemic wiping out frogs in South America. Sartore managed to photograph Toughie just before he passed. His photo was projected upon the United Nations building in New York City as part of Louie Psihoyos’ Racing Extinction documentary, which also feature our own Stuart Pimm.

Among the warnings of doom and gloom, Sartore shares the inspiring men and women he has met. Throughout his travels, he was reminded that there are people working tirelessly to help conserve endangered species, be it through breeding programs in reservations or educational outreach at zoos. He reminded the audience that even the smallest effort: being energy efficient or making conscious economic choices can help our planet and all that share it.

As an amateur wildlife photographer, it was a dream to hear him talk and see his photos. My greatest takeaway was his recommendation to find what you are good at and really focus on it. For him, all he did growing up was photography. For me, I hope to be able to work as a conservation biologist so that these animals will not only exist in a digital catalogue, but have a future in the wild.